Book Review: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

So, I haven’t written a review in a while, I know. Let’s just say that having two kids has really kicked my ass over the past year. But now the baby is almost 1, so it’s time to be semi-productive again. However, let’s face it, I can’t luxuriate over my book reviews like I used to.  I loved writing long reviews, ruminating about my posts for days, and editing somewhat thoroughly.  As much as I’d like, I can’t do that anymore. Thus, my new self-imposed rule is that I cannot spend more than one hour on any book review, and that includes editing.

That said, I won’t waste any more time, and will launch right into my review of This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman. This cautionary tale revolves around the Bergamot family, recent Manhattan transplants who are fortunate enough to send their two kids to what appears to be a thinly veiled version of Horace Mann. Their “beautiful life” comes screeching to a halt when their teenaged son, Jake, receives an explicit video from a female classmate, which he then forwards on to a friend.  Of course, the video goes viral. Liz and Richard, Jake’s parents, scramble to protect their son, who faces harsh punishment academically and socially, while privately dealing with their own mixed feelings on the horrific situation.

The explicit video situation sends chills up my spine, as I am sure it does for most parents. Technology in the hands of young stupid kids is scary.  But that’s a no-brainer. It’s the setting of this story that really makes it juicy.  The Manhattan private school universe is a crazy beast, an upper-crust world that I don’t completely understand myself (and yet the esteemed “Hill Schools” of the Bronx, as attended by Jake and his classmates, lie practically in my backyard).  The evocative part of This Beautiful Life is really how the New York City elite decide to handle such a messy affair. This was, frankly, disturbing. Lawyers were brought in immediately. The boys involved were suspended but then returned to school in short order, as if not to ruin their future careers as investment bankers. Criminal charges were threatened, but never taken seriously.  The girl who created the video was whisked off to her various vacation homes around the world to ride out the scandal.  Money was thrown at the problem to make it go away, and mostly, it did. Yet for most students, this neat conclusion would not an option. How would a viral sex video made by one student, and distributed by other students, be handled in a middle class school, or in a poor one?  I’d guess it would be quite different.

As I read the book, I began to wonder who the author wanted the reader to sympathize with.  Maybe we were supposed to feel bad for Liz and Jake, the poor lost souls? I still don’t know.  Liz and Richard, the parents, are odious (and yet you get the feeling they are two of the more down to earth parents at Jake’s school).  Both seem really unconnected to their kids.  Richard is ultimately more concerned about how Jake’s actions will affect his career than how Jake himself will fare. Liz, too, seems more concerned with dealing with the social fallout from the other Manhattan mothers and relies on her small vices (internet addiction, pot) to get through the days.  Moreover, Liz and Richard almost completely ignore their younger daughter, Coco, and are in denial that she is, in fact, a bona fide brat and not the “free spirit” they consider her.

Although I was horrified by how the scandal played out in this very insulated, cushy domain, I don’t claim to know the right way to handle such a terrible affair.  As a feminist, I’m angered that the boys got off easily. And yet, as the mother of sons, I’m sure I’d do whatever it took to protect them if they found themselves in a similar situation (without the ample resources of the Bergamots). Still, I cannot imagine I wouldn’t be furious with my sons if they were involved in such an affair, and this emotion seemed to be lacking altogether in Liz and Richard.

However, I did feel that the novel redeemed itself at the end. Liz seems to rouse herself from her trance and tells her husband:  “It’s just that this beautiful life….I can’t manage it. You worked so hard to build it, but I can’t manage it. And I don’t want it.” And I think this is the right answer, if only she had reached it earlier. We learn that, following this revelation, Liz and Richard separate, but not divorce, and Liz moves to Ann Arbor and restarts her career as a professor. Young Coco appears to have survived the ordeal; but Jake continues to suffer.  He flunks out of Princeton, develops substance abuse issues, and generally flails about. Interestingly, in the book’s final chapter we also learn that Daisy, the star of the explicit video, has done just fine.  The video behind her, she now has an internship at Goldman Sachs, secured for her by her dad.  I have to wonder whether, by ending the book with Daisy rather than the Bergamots, Schulman is saying that the Bergamots suffered the most and the longest in this scandal because they are the most at fault; or because they were not enough of the privileged world they sought to enter.


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